Lawrence Block Talks Self-Publishing

Yes, that Lawrence Block.

I can’t quite believe we have one of the most successful mystery writers of all time here on our blog! Mr. Block is the author of over fifty novels and even more short stories, including his two long-running series featuring P.I. Matthew Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr.

He has been named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and is a four-time winner of the Edgar and Shamus Awards. He’s the recipient of prizes in France, Germany, and Japan and received the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association—only the third American to be given this award. The list of his awards goes on for days.

He’s also a master teacher who has authored some of the great books on the craft of writing, including one of my favorites, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

So why would a superstar turn to self-publishing? Read on:

D-I-Y Publishing—
New Tricks for an Old Dog
by Lawrence Block

It was in 1954 that I first entertained the motion of writing for a living, and a few years later I was doing it. I sold a story to Manhunt in the summer of 1957, and by the end of the following year I’d published a batch of magazine stories and articles, and written and sold three novels. (Most of the stories have been recently republished by HarperCollins in One Night Stands and Lost Weekends; the novels—Strange Are the Ways of Love by Lesley Evans, and Carla and A Strange Kind of Love by Sheldon Lord—are newly available as Open Road eBooks.)

In 1964 I took an editorial job in Wisconsin and stayed there for eighteen months, but with that exception I’ve spent all my working life as a free-lance writer.  (And in fact I did write a couple of books during that year and a half of honest work.) The friends of my youth were in the same fragile boat, chasing the same dragon—or white whale, or what you will. We spent many long nights, generally with glass in hand, and we talked about everything—God, how we talked! You’d have thought we were still getting paid by the word, even away from the typewriter.

We often talked about publishers. I don’t think we saw them as the enemy, or regarded the writer-publisher relationship as inherently adversarial. But it seemed to us, as I suspect it has seemed to every writer since Homer, that they were ham–handed oafs who did everything wrong. The fault, dear Bruce, was neither in our stars nor in ourselves; it was those dimwit publishers who kept us off the bestseller list.

And of course we dreamed of doing their job ourselves. Why let some twit in a Brooks Brothers suit screw up our careers when we could screw them up ourselves? Self-publishing was a seductive fantasy, but it was never more than that.  Because, while we may have been crazy, we weren’t flat-out stupid. While publishing was not yet the multinational corporate industry it has since become, and while enterprising fellows did start successful operations on not much more than a shoestring, they put in eighty-hour weeks and hustled like mad. Publishing wasn’t something for a creative type to engage in on nights and weekends, after his real work of making up stories was out of the way. You needed capital, you needed distribution, you needed no end of unattainable expertise.

But in 1985, with my nights and weekend already given over to an interactional seminar for writers, I decided to venture into self-publishing.

It was a special situation.  I felt the need for a book version of the seminar, both for attendees to take home with them and to make the material available to the many people unable to get to one of our sessions. My publisher at the time was Arbor House, and they’d done quite well with Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, so I might have persuaded them to take a shot at Write For Your Life—but I couldn’t delude myself into the notion that this would be a book with broad commercial potential. 

No, the book’s natural market would be limited to writers who’d taken the seminar or were thinking of taking it, along with readers of my monthly Writers Digest column. I was reaching precisely those people with my print and direct-mail advertising for the seminar, and I could easily piggy-back a pitch for the book in those ads.  The book didn’t need to be in bookstores, so I didn’t need a distributor.  All I needed was books, and if I was ever going to publish anything myself, this was my chance.

Besides, the sooner I had books in hand, the sooner I could sell them.  A publisher would take a year or longer. By using Arbor House’s production guy, who did this sort of thing in his spare time, I got books professionally produced in a couple of months. I printed 5000 books, and, even though I was unable to process credit card transactions, I managed to sell just over 4900 of them by the time Lynne and I got out of the seminar business.  (It had been great fun, and produced some positive results in people’s lives, but all the income went to hotels and airlines, and we were working our butts off for 50¢ an hour. And I was also beginning to feel uncomfortable with the role of a Writing Guru, and knew it was time to get back to writing.)

Self-publishing.  A success, all in all, and by no means an unpleasant experience.  Still, I never expected to find myself doing it again.


What changed, of course, was the world. I was aware of eBooks 20 years ago, and knew right away that they had a future, but wasn’t sure any of us would be alive to see it. Kindle was the game-changer, and Amazon’s self-publishing program didn’t just level the playing field. It broadened it as well.

I got right into it, making a handful of backlist titles available for Kindle. When Open Road came around and made a deal for 40+ backlist books of mine, I took down the few I’d published myself—except for a couple of novelettes that I thought of as pieces of string too short to save.  I left them where they were, and they went on selling a few copies a month, and when I noticed the numbers creeping upward, I started uploading various uncollected short stories at 99¢ a pop.

Gradually I learned how to buy stock photos and make my own eCovers; it turned out to be easy to do, and sometimes the results were better than any number of covers to have graced my books over the years.  Some of those short stories got two or three downloads a month, but others got two or three dozen, and my top sellers got two or three hundred. 

It wasn’t long before I had two dozen stories out there, on Nook as well as Kindle. I could know at a glance exactly how they were selling, and I could refresh the page every ten minutes if I wanted. (And even if I didn’t want to.  I mean, if you’re not going to be obsessive-compulsive about something, why bother with it at all?)

I didn’t self-publish, for Nook or for Kindle, any of my Matthew Scudder short stories.

I had nine of them, and the more recent were on my hard drive in digital form, so it would have been a cinch to render them eVailable. And I knew they’d be popular with readers. The only thing that held me back was the thought that they really ought to be a book.

Well, that was easy enough.  Just gather them together into a single file, think up a title and slap it on a cover, and publish it the way I’d published the short stories.

Or I could do it right.  Add a vignette previously published only as the text of a limited-edition broadside, and write another wholly new story to cap off the collection.  And make of the whole something rather more professional than my previous Nook-and-Kindle efforts.

I had lunch with two friends of mine, the screenwriting/directing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and left the table with an idea for that new story, along with Brian’s offer to contribute an appreciation of Matthew Scudder. 

Now I was really determined to do it right, and I arranged for the folks at Telemachus Press to do the heavy lifting—scanning the non-digital stories, proofreading the nightmarish OCR scans, formatting the text for all eBook platforms, and performing all the tasks that make a world of difference.

I wrote the new story, plus an afterword that put all the stories in historical perspective. I found a stock photo, picked a display font.  I wanted to make sure the cover was outstanding, because somewhere along the way I decided to gamble on a Print-on-Demand paperback edition.

You don’t need a full play-by-play.  What’s remarkable, it seems to me, is that it was the middle of July when I first thought about doing all this, and on September 30th the eBook went live on Kindle and Nook. Two weeks later, on Friday, October 14th, I took delivery on 500 gorgeous trade paperback copies of The Night and The Music, and by Saturday afternoon I’d shipped 350 copies, filling all my prepaid orders.

It is, I assure you, a slow way to get rich.  But it is clearly a very fast way to bring a book into existence, a book which might well otherwise not exist at all, ever.  I’d already discovered this with two collections of Writers Digest columns, The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion, which Open Road brought out as eRiginals, and confirmed it with Afterthoughts, a piecemeal memoir composed of the afterwords I wrote for Open Road’s editions of my backlist titles.

These were all books that seemed unlikely to provoke interest, let alone enthusiasm, from a traditional commercial publisher.  But readers have been finding them, and saying nice things about them, and my world is fuller for their presence in it. 

I might have found a publisher for The Night and the MusicI never looked for one.  I wanted the experience of self-publishing in this intrepid new eWorld. I knew it would be interesting, and I figured it would be fun.  So far it’s been both.

And will it turn out to be profitable?

I think so.  One of the first decisions I made was to price the eBook at $2.99. No end of folks assured me that this was too low, that I was leaving money on the table, that Scudder fans  would gladly pay two or three times that for a new collection. I was told, too, that a low price would somehow be demeaning to the book.

I decided I wanted to maximize my audience, and had come to believe that the price-sensitive eBook market would reward a low price.  (As for a low price demeaning the book, I decided that was crap; there are enough egos I have occasion to worry about in my daily life, and I don’t need to ascribe an ego to the book and take care not to bruise it.)

At $2.99, it looks as though the eBook will cover its expenses within six weeks of publication, if not sooner.  Once it does, everything’s profit.  The paperback, higher in price at $16.99, cost more to publish, and there are ongoing printing and shipping costs for every copy I sell.  Even so, it’s already edging into the black.

And there’s Otto Penzler’s $150 leather-bound collector edition, too, limited to 100 signed and numbered copies. I won’t get too much out of that beyond a gorgeous book for my library, but that’s okay—and its mere existence makes the trade paperback look like a remarkable bargain, and the eBook an out-and-out steal.

But all of that’s secondary, really.  The Night and the Music is a book, for heaven’s sake! A new book, filling a spot on the shelf where once there was but empty space. Whether the shelf is physical or virtual, there’s my book, and don’t she look grand?

So would I do it again? 

Not with my next new novel, which I’ll be delighted to publish with Mulholland Books, who did such a fine job with A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Not with Jill Emerson’s next effort, should she happen to write one, which I’d hope to publish with Hard Case Crime, who’ve done so well with Getting Off. Not with a batch of backlist titles, which I hope to see ePublished by Open Road.

But with the right material, and at the right time, and if I continue to enjoy the whole process as much as I’m enjoying it right now…

Yeah, you bet I’d do it again.

And he designed that brilliant cover himself. Amazing. Self-publishing is now officially mainstream.

For me, one of the most positive messages here is: short fiction is back! For so many years we’ve been told to treat short fiction as “beginner” and “practice” writing, because short stories make no money and anthologies are impossible to place.

But they’re back in style with ebooks. These days—with people reading on their phones and tablets while on the go—the short form is very reader-friendly. You can sell them one at a time or as collections.

Also: $2.99 seems to be the sweet spot for ebook pricing.

How about you, scriveners? Does this ease any doubts about self-publishing? Do you have any short stories in your files that might make good ebooks?


This week my blog tour will make a stop at Mystery Writing is Murder, the blog of Elizabeth S. Craig/Riley Adams, author of the wonderful Memphis Barbeque mysteries. I’ll be talking about bad writing advice.

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